Ben Henley, University of Melbourne; Andrew King, University of Melbourne; Anna Ukkola, Australian National University; Murray Peel, University of Melbourne; Q J Wang, University of Melbourne, and Rory Nathan, University of Melbourne
The issue of whether Australia’s current drought is caused by climate change has been seized on by some media commentators, with debate raging over a remark from eminent scientist Andy Pitman that “there is no link between climate change and drought”. Professor Pitman has since qualified, he meant to say “there is no direct link between climate change and drought”.
A highly politicised debate that tries to corner scientists will not do much to help rural communities struggling with the ongoing dry. But it is still worthwhile understanding the complexity of how climate change relates to drought.
It may seem like splitting hairs to focus on single words, but the reality is drought is complex, and broad definitive statements are difficult to make. Nevertheless, aspects of drought are linked with climate change. Let us try to give you a taste of the complexity.
First, it’s important to understand that drought is a manifestation of interactions between the atmosphere, ocean, and land. In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology uses rainfall deficiencies to identify regions that are under drought conditions. Anyone on the land doesn’t need to be reminded, but the current drought is seriously bad. These maps show the patterns of rainfall deficiency over the past 36 and 18 months, highlighting the severity and extent of what we call meteorological drought.
But along with the main driver – low rainfall – droughts can also be exacerbated by water loss through evaporation. This depends not only on temperature but also humidity, wind speeds, and sunshine. Temperature will clearly continue to rise steadily almost everywhere. For the other factors, the future is not quite as clear.
Water loss also varies according to vegetation cover. Plants respond to higher carbon dioxide levels and drought by closing the tiny holes in their leaves (the stomata) and this can actually reduce water loss in wet environments. However, in water-stressed environments, projected long-term declines in rain may be compounded by plants using more water, further reducing streamflow. Actually, we can glean a lot from studying hydrological drought, which is measured by a period of low flow in rivers.
The point here is droughts are multidimensional, and can affect water supply on a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. A seasonal-scale drought that reduces soil moisture on a farm, and a decade-long drought that depletes reservoirs and groundwater supplies, can each be devastating, but in different ways.
Climate change may affect drought metrics and types of drought differently, so it can be hard to make general statements about the links between human-induced climate change and all types of drought, in all locations, on all timescales.
Southern Australia, and in particular the southwest, has seen a rapid decline in winter rainfall and runoff that has been linked to climate change. In the southeast there has also been a substantial decline in winter rainfall and total runoff in recent decades. Although the reductions are consistent with climate change projections, the trend so far is harder to distinguish from the year-to-year variability.
There is some evidence to suggest that widespread and prolonged droughts, like the Millennium Drought, are worse than other droughts in past centuries, and may have been exacerbated by climate change.
But the role of climate change in extended drought periods is difficult to discern from normal variations in weather and climate. This is particularly true in Australia, which has a much more variable climate than many other parts of the world.
Climate models project increasing temperature across Australia and a continuing decline in cool-season rainfall over southern Australia over the next century. This will lead to more pressure on water supplies for agriculture, the environment, and cities such as Melbourne at the Paris Agreement’s target of 2℃, relative to the more ambitious target of 1.5℃ of global warming.
Rainfall is projected to become more extreme, with more intense rain events and fewer light rain days. Declining overall rainfall is predicted to reduce river flows in southeastern Australia. While we can expect the largest floods to increase with climate change, smaller floods are decreasing due to drier soils, and it is these smaller floods that top up our water supply systems.
We might not know enough about droughts to be certain about exactly how they will behave in the future, but this does not affect the message from the science community on climate change, which remains crystal clear.
Rainfall intensification, sea level rise, ocean acidification, hotter days, and longer and more intense heatwaves all point to the fact that climate change presents a major threat to Australia and the world.
In response to these threats, we need deep and sustained greenhouse gas emissions cuts and proactive adaptation to the inevitable effects of climate change. This includes a focus right now on the practical measures to help our rural communities who continue to feel the pinch of a dry landscape.
Ben Henley, Research Fellow in Climate and Water Resources, University of Melbourne; Andrew King, ARC DECRA fellow, University of Melbourne; Anna Ukkola, Research Fellow, Australian National University; Murray Peel, Senior lecturer, University of Melbourne; Q J Wang, Professor, University of Melbourne, and Rory Nathan, Associate Professor Hydrology and Water Resources, University of Melbourne
There is a phrase in the novel East of Eden that springs to mind every time politicians speak of “drought-proofing” Australia:
And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.
While author John Steinbeck was referring to California’s Salinas Valley, the phrase is particularly pertinent to Australia where the El Niño-Southern Oscillation exerts a profound influence. Water availability varies greatly across the country, both in space and time. El Niño conditions bring droughts and devastating bushfires, while La Niña is accompanied by violent rainfall, floods and cyclones.
This variability is innate to the Australian environment. And now, climate change means that in some regions, the dry years are becoming drier and the wet years are becoming less frequent. Managing water resources under a changing climate and burgeoning population requires innovative and realistic solutions that are different to those that have worked in the past.
Planning for the dry years involves setting sustainable usage limits, using more than one source of water, efficiency improvements, managed aquifer recharge, water recycling and evaluation of the best usage of water resources. It does not involve misleading claims of drought-proofing that infer we can somehow tame the unruly nature of our arid environment instead of planning and preparing for reality.
Unlike managing for the wet and dry periods, drought-proofing seeks to negate dry periods through infrastructure schemes such as large dams (subject to huge evaporative losses) and dubious river diversions. It fails to acknowledge the intrinsic variability of water availability in Australia, and modify our behaviour accordingly.
The reality is that in many parts of the country, groundwater is the sole source of water and the climate is very dry. A cornerstone of the recently launched $100 million National Water Grid Authority is the construction of more dams. But dams need rain to fill them, because without rain, all we have is empty dams. And we have enough of those already.
Just because Dorothea Mackellar wrote of “droughts and flooding rains” over 100 years ago, it doesn’t mean water management should proceed in the same vein it always has.
Australia has always had a variable climate, which changes significantly from year to year and also decade to decade. This not the same as a long-term climatic trend, better known as climate change.
Climate change is making parts of Australia even drier. Rainfall in the south-eastern part of Australia is projected to keep declining. We cannot rely on blind faith that rains will fill dams once more because they have in the past.
Yet inevitably, during the dry years, claims that Australia can be “drought-proofed” are renewed. Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack recently praised the Bradfield scheme, an 80 year old infrastructure project intending to divert northern river flows inland. It has been so thoroughly debunked on all scales, it is better described as a pipe-dream than piping scheme. It has no place in reasonable water management discourse.
The concept of drought-proofing harks back to the days of European settlement. Early water management techniques were more appropriate for verdant English fields than the arid plains of Australia.
In the early twentieth century, water resources were vigorously developed, with government-sponsored irrigation schemes and large dams constructed. During this time, little thought was given to sustainability. Instead, the goal was to stimulate inland settlement, agriculture and industry. Development was pursued despite the cost and ill-advised nature of irrigation in particular areas.
All this said, irrigation certainly has its place: it supports a quarter of Australia’s agricultural output. And there are substantial efforts underway to rebalance water usage between irrigation and the environment.
However, acknowledgement of the relative scarcity of water in certain parts of Australia has only really occurred in the last 30 years or so.
Widespread droughts in the late 1970s and early 1980s highlighted the importance of effective water management and shifted long-entrenched perceptions of irrigation and development. Water reforms were passed, mandating future water development be environmentally sustainable development, which meant, for the first time, water resource management sought a balance between economic, social and environmental needs.
Antiquated ideas about drought-proofing, pushed by politicians, promise much yet deliver little. They distract attention and siphon funds from realistic solutions, or actually re-evaluating where and how we use our limited water resources.
We need practical, effective and well-considered management such as water recycling, efficiency measures and source-divestment that accounts for both shorter term climatic variability and long term changes in temperature and rainfall due to climate change. A big part of this is managing expectations through education.
Attempting to drought-proof Australia is not “managing for the dry periods”, as advocates claim. It is sticking our heads in the dry, salty sand and pretending the land is cool and green and wet.
Winter still has a few days to run, but it’s highly likely to be one of Australia’s warmest and driest on record. While final numbers will be crunched once August ends, this winter will probably rank among the top ten warmest for daytime temperatures and the top ten driest for rainfall.
While it was drier than average across most of the country, it was especially dry across South Australia, New South Wales and southern Queensland. Small areas of South Australia and New South Wales are on track for their driest winter on record.
In contrast, parts of southern Victoria, western Tasmania and central Queensland were wetter than usual.
Soil moisture normally increases during winter (except in the tropics, where it’s the dry season), and while we saw that in parts of Victoria, for most of Queensland and New South Wales the soil moisture actually decreased.
Dry soils leading into winter have soaked up the rain that has fallen, resulting in limited runoff and inflows into the major water storages across the country.
Sydney’s water storages dropping below 50% received considerable public attention, and unfortunately a number of other regional storages in New South Wales and the Murray Darling Basin are much lower than that.
The winter ‘filling’ season in the southern Murray Darling Basin has been drier than usual for the third year in a row, and storages in the northern Murray Darling basin are extremely low or empty with no meaningful inflows.
Some regions did receive enough rainfall to grow crops this cool season. However, northern New South Wales and southern Queensland didn’t see an improvement in their severe year-to-date rainfall deficiencies over winter.
In fact, the area of the country that is experiencing year-to-date rainfall in the lowest 5% of historical records expanded.
In better news, the severe year-to-date deficiencies across southwest Western Australia shrank during winter.
Sustained differences between sea surface temperatures in the tropical western and eastern Indian Ocean are known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). The IOD impacts Australian seasonal rainfall and temperature patterns, much like the more well known El Niño–Southern Oscillation.
Warm sea surface temperatures in the tropical western Indian Ocean and cool sea surface temperatures in the eastern Indian Ocean, along with changes in both cloud and wind patterns, have been consistent with a positive Indian Ocean Dipole since late May.
International climate models, some of which forecast the positive IOD as early as February, agree that it is likely to continue through spring.
Typically, this means below average rainfall and above average temperatures for much of central and southern Australia, which is consistent with the current rainfall and temperature outlook from the Bureau’s dynamical computer model. The positive IOD is likely to be the dominant climate driver for Australia during the next three months.
Chances are the remainder of 2019 will be drier than normal for most of Australia. The exceptions are western Tasmania, southern Victoria and western WA, where chances of a wetter or drier than average end to the year are roughly equal.
Warmer than average days are very likely (chances above 80%) for most of the country except the far south of the mainland, and Tasmania.
Nights too are likely to be warmer than average for most of the country. However, much of Victoria and Tasmania, and southern parts of South Australia and New South Wales have close to an even chance for warmer than average minimum temperatures.
Due to the warm and dry start to the year, the east coast of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, as well as parts of southern Western Australia, face above normal fire potential this coming bushfire season.
The term weather describes conditions over shorter periods, such as from minutes to days, while the term climate describes the more slowly varying aspects of the atmosphere.
From today, the Bureau of Meteorology is closing the forecast gap between weather and climate information with the release of weekly and fortnightly climate outlooks.
For the first time, rainfall and temperature outlooks for the weeks directly after the 7-day forecast are available. One- and two-week outlooks have been added to complement the existing 1-month and 3-month outlooks.
The new outlook information for the weeks ahead also features how much above or below average temperatures are likely to be, and the likelihood of different rainfall totals.
You can find climate outlooks and summaries on the Bureau of Meteorology website here.
The federal parliament has voted to funnel A$200 million to drought-stricken areas. What exactly this money will be spent on is still under consideration, but the majority will go to rural, inland communities.
But once there, what can the money usefully be spent on? Especially if there’s been a permanent decline in rainfall, as seen in Perth. How can we help inland communities?
Let’s look at the small inland town of Guyra, NSW, which is close to running dry. Unlike our coastal cities, Guyra cannot simply build a billion-dollar desalination plant to supply its water. Towns like Guyra must look elsewhere for its solutions.
“Running dry” means there is no water when the tap is turned on. It seems to make sense to blame the drought for Guyra’s lack of water. But the available water supply is not only determined by rainfall. It also depends on amount of water flowing into water storage (called streamflow), and the capacity and security of that storage.
While Perth has had a distinct downturn in its rainfall since the 1970s and has built desalination plants to respond to this challenge, no such downturn is evident at Guyra. Indeed, to date, the driest consecutive two years on record for Guyra were 100 years ago (1918 and 1919).
Despite the differences, there are some similarities between Perth and Guyra. As a rule of thumb, in Australia, significant streamflow into water storages does not occur until annual rainfall reaches around 600mm. This occurs as streamflow is generally supplied from “wet patches” when water can no longer soak into the soil. Thus, if annual rainfall is around 600mm or below, we generally anticipate very little streamflow.
While Guyra has seen some rain in 2019, it is not enough to prompt this crucial flow of water into the local water storage. The same is true for Perth, with annual rainfall in the past few decades now hovering close to the 600mm threshold.
Importantly, rainfall and streamflow do not have a linear relationship. Annual rainfall in Perth has declined by around 20%, but Perth’s streamflow has fallen by more than 90%.
With little streamflow filling its dams, Perth had little choice but to find other ways of increasing its water supply. They built desalination plants to make up the difference.
Let’s return to Guyra in NSW and the current drought. The rainfall records do not indicate there is a long-term downward trend in rainfall. But even without a rainfall trend, there are still dry years when there is little streamflow. Indeed, in Guyra, the rainfall record shows that, on average, the rainfall will be 600mm or less roughly one year out of every ten years.
So how do the residents of Guyra ensure a reliable water supply, given that they cannot build themselves a desalination plant?
Well, in this case, you can simply get water from somewhere else if it is available. A pipeline is currently under construction to supply Guyra from the nearby Malpas Dam, and is expected to be in operation very soon.
But that’s not always an option. A made-in-Guyra water solution means one thing: expanding storage capacity.
Guyra can generally store around 8 months of their normal water demand (although of course demand varies with the seasons, droughts, water restrictions and price per litre).
To give a point of comparison, Sydney can store up to five years of its normal water demand, and has a desalination plant besides. Despite these advantages, Sydney residents are now under stage one water restrictions which happens when its storages are only 50% full. Yet, even when Sydney’s glass is only half-full, that city still has at least another two years of water left to meet the expected water demand even without using desalination.
By comparison, when water storages in Guyra are 50% full, they have less than six months normal water supply.
It is astonishingly difficult to find accurate data on small-town water supplies but in my experience Guyra is not unique among rural towns. There is a big divide between the water security of those living in Australia’s big cities compared to smaller inland towns. Many rural communities simply do not have sufficient water storage to withstand multi-year droughts, and in some cases, cannot even withstand one year of drought.
Nature, drought and climate change cannot be blamed for all of our water problems. In rural inland towns, inadequate planning and funding for household water can sometimes be the real culprit. Whether Australians live in rural communities or big cities, they should be treated fairly in terms of both the availability and the quality of the water they use.
Water prices in the southern Murray-Darling Basin have reached their highest levels since the worst of the Millennium drought more than a decade ago. These high water prices are causing much anxiety in the region, and have led the federal government to call on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to hold an inquiry into the water market.
Inevitably, whenever an important good becomes more expensive – be it housing, electricity or water – there is a rush to identify potential causes and culprits. In the past few years high water prices have been blamed on foreign investors, corporate speculators, state government water-sharing rules, new almond plantings and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
While some of these factors have had an effect on the market, they are in many ways a distraction from the simpler truth: that high water prices have mostly been caused by a lack of rain.
Market reforms in the 1980s and 1990s enabled water trading in many parts of Australia. By far the most active market exists in the southern Murray-Darling basin, which covers the Murray River and its tributaries in northern Victoria, southern New South Wales and eastern South Australia.
The market allows users – mostly irrigation farmers – to trade their water allocations (effectively shares of water in the rivers’ major dams). This trading helps ensure limited water supplies go to the farmers who value them the most, which can be crucial in times of drought.
Historical data shows the main driver of water market prices in the southern basin is change in water supply.
The following chart shows storage volumes (in orange) and water prices (in red) in the southern basin since 2006. Prices peaked at the height of the Millennium drought in 2007. During the floods of 2011, they fell near zero. Prices have increased again during the latest drought, and are now at their highest levels in a decade.
While water prices have always been higher in dry years and lower in wet, we’ve been getting a lot more dry years in recent decades.
Over the past 20 years, rainfall, run-off and stream flow in the southern basin has been far less than historical conditions.
The below chart shows modelled flow data for the Murray River, assuming historical weather conditions and no water extraction, over the past century. It shows that average water flows this century are about 40% below the average of the 20th century.
Lower rainfall and higher temperatures also make crops thirstier, increasing demand for irrigation water. This was evident in January, when temperatures exceeded 35℃ for 14 days and irrigators’ demand for water spiked from about 4.5 gigalitres to 7 gigalitres a day.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan seeks to improve the environmental health of the river system by recovering water rights from irrigation farmers. To date, more than 1,700 gigalitres of water rights – about 20% of annual water supply – have been recovered in the southern basin.
By reducing supply, water recovery was always expected to increase water prices. However, the effects of water recovery on supply – while significant – are still small relative to the effects of climate over the same period, as shown in the below chart.
Measuring the precise effect of water recovery on prices is difficult. Water buybacks are straightforward and have been modelled by ABARES and others. But the effects of infrastructure programs – where farmers return a portion of their water rights in exchange for funding to upgrade infrastructure – are harder to estimate.
Historically farmers had to use water allocations within a 12-month window. The introduction of “carryover” – most recently in Victoria in 2008 – means users can now hold their unused water in dams. This rule change was a good thing, as it encourages farmers to conserve water and build up a buffer against drought.
But it might also have contributed to anxiety about the water market’s operations.
Since water allocations can be bought and held for multiple years, information about future conditions can have a big effect on prices now. For example, we see large jumps in price following news of worse-than-expected supply forecasts. This may have helped fuel concern about “speculators”.
Over the longer-term, the ability to store water helps to “smooth” water prices, with slightly higher prices in most years offset by much lower prices in drought years. Again this is a good thing, but it may have added to the perception of higher prices in the market.
When a profitable new irrigation activity is willing to pay more for water – as is the case with almond farms in the southern basin – competition for limited supplies can potentially drive up prices.
ABARES’ research shows that between 2003 and 2016 there was little change in irrigation demand (aside from that linked to rainfall). Growth in demand from expanding activities such as almonds and cotton was offset by reductions in others including dairy, rice and wine grapes. However, there is evidence since 2016 that demand for water has started to increase, contributing to higher water prices. Longer-term projections suggest this trend may continue.
With drought and climate change reducing water supply, and demand for both environmental and irrigation water increasing, high water prices are only likely to become more common in the basin in future.
Most citizen science initiatives ask people to record living things, like frogs, wombats, or feral animals. But dead things can also be hugely informative for science. We have just launched a new citizen science project, The Dead Tree Detective, which aims to record where and when trees have died in Australia.
The current drought across southeastern Australia has been so severe that native trees have begun to perish, and we need people to send in photographs tracking what has died. These records will be valuable for scientists trying to understand and predict how native forests and woodlands are vulnerable to climate extremes.
Understanding where trees are most at risk is becoming urgent because it’s increasingly clear that climate change is already underway. On average, temperatures across Australia have risen more than 1℃ since 1910, and winter rainfall in southern Australia has declined. Further increases in temperature, and increasing time spent in drought, are forecast.
How our native plants cope with these changes will affect (among other things) biodiversity, water supplies, fire risk, and carbon storage. Unfortunately, how climate change is likely to affect Australian vegetation is a complex problem, and one we don’t yet have a good handle on.
All plants have a preferred average climate where they grow best (their “climatic niche”). Many Australian tree species have small climatic niches.
It’s been estimated an increase of 2℃ would see 40% of eucalypt species stranded in climate conditions to which they are not adapted.
But what happens if species move out of their climatic niche? It’s possible there will be a gradual migration across the landscape as plants move to keep up with the climate.
It’s also possible that plants will generally grow better, if carbon dioxide rises and frosts become less common (although this is a complicated and disputed claim.
However, a third possibility is that increasing climate extremes will lead to mass tree deaths, with severe consequences.
There are examples of all three possibilities in the scientific literature, but reports of widespread tree death are becoming increasingly commonplace.
Many scientists, including ourselves, are now trying to identify the circumstances under which we may see trees die from climate stress. Quantifying these thresholds is going to be key for working out where vegetation may be headed.
Australian plants must deal with the most variable rainfall in the world. Only trees adapted to prolonged drought can survive. However, drought severity is forecast to increase, and rising heat extremes will exacerbate drought stress past their tolerance.
To explain why droughts overwhelm trees, we need to look at the water transport system that keeps them alive. Essentially, trees draw water from the soil through their roots and up to their leaves. Plants do not have a pump (like our hearts) to move water – instead, water is pulled up under tension using energy from sunlight. Our research illustrates how this transport system breaks down during droughts.
In hot weather, more moisture evaporates from trees’ leaves, putting more pressure on their water transport system. This evaporation can actually be useful, because it keeps the trees’ leaves cool during heatwaves. However if there is not enough water available, leaf temperatures can become lethally high, scorching the tree canopy.
We’ve also identified how drought tolerance varies among native tree species. Species growing in low-rainfall areas are better equipped to handle drought, showing they are finely tuned to their climate niche and suggesting many species will be vulnerable if climate change increases drought severity.
Based on all of these data, we hope to be able to predict where and when trees will be vulnerable to death from drought and heat stress. The problem lies in testing our predictions – and that’s where citizen science comes in. Satellite remote sensing can help us track overall greenness of ecosystems, but it can’t detect individual tree death. Observation on the ground is needed.
However, there is no system in place to record tree death from drought in Australia. For example, during the Millennium Drought, the most severe and extended drought for a century in southern Australia, there are almost no records of native tree death (other than along the rivers, where over-extraction of water was also an issue). Were there no deaths? Or were they simply not recorded?
The current drought gripping the southeast has not been as long as the Millennium Drought, but it does appear to be more intense, with some places receiving almost no rain for two years. We’ve also had a summer of repeated heatwaves, which will have intensified the stress.
We’re hearing anecdotal reports of tree death in the news and on twitter. We’re aiming to capture these anecdotal reports, and back them up with information including photographs, locations, numbers and species of trees affected, on the Dead Tree Detective.
We encourage anyone who sees dead trees around them to hop online and contribute. The Detective also allows people to record tree deaths from other causes – and trees that have come back to life again (sometimes dead isn’t dead). It can be depressing to see trees die – but recording their deaths for science helps to ensure they won’t have died in vain.